The first time I marvelled over whole truffles was at a Sicilian restaurant in Toronto that, sadly, no longer exists. We walked into the crowded restaurant and, by chance, snagged two spots at the chef’s table. The chef-owner was my brother’s friend. My brother said to him: “Roberto, show my sister what truffles look like.”
The chef slid over a plastic Rubbermaid container, the way a bartender slides a glass of whisky neat across the bar counter. I opened the container and a strong smell collided with my face. There must have been about two kilograms of black truffles in there. The aroma was earthy, nutty, buttery, seductive — and completely overpowering.
Chefs love to work with truffles in season because the right amount of the fresh fungus added to even the simplest dish creates a luxurious experience, as well as a sensory one. The mysterious mushroom boasts such a strong scent, it appears to rise off of the plate.
It’s no secret that the most coveted truffles are born and raised in Italy and France. Périgord truffles from France — also called black diamonds — are the holy grail of black truffles. “Périgord is a truffle that presents itself with a unique and intense aroma. Inside are white filaments that contrast the darker flesh,” says Daniele Corona, executive chef of Don Alfonso 1890 in Toronto. “Other truffles do not boast the same distinctive, intense smell, plus they taste very flat.”
But beyond the highly esteemed white truffles from Italy and black truffles from France, other parts of Europe are perfectly capable of growing truffles that are very popular among chefs. Outside of Europe, Oregon, Australia, Japan and China can grow them as well. Believe it or not, British Columbia is also experimenting with planting truffle orchards — although I’m not sure I trust those ones just yet.
“The island of Gotland, off of Sweden, has pretty good truffles,” says Ian Doyle, executive chef of The House Restaurant, the Michelin-star wonder inside The Cliff House Hotel in Ireland. “In my opinion, Irish truffles are closer to the French and Italian. We have a cool, damp climate, which is perfect for spores and fungi.”
Richard Singh, the executive chef of Toronto’s Gladstone House and The Broadview Hotel, also prefers to work with truffles from outside of the acclaimed truffle-producing countries. “I buy my truffles from Croatia (through White Truffles), which I discovered while truffle hunting on my visit there. I found the climate and geography matched the conditions in France and Italy. I also found the quality to be almost identical. Tasmanian and Australian truffles are also identical to the European ones and, at times, even better than the French.”
The national pride of local ingredients is arguably most dramatically vocalized in France and Italy. For this reason, you won’t find French or Italian chefs admitting that their neighbouring countries produce fine truffles. “I never buy outside of France, except for white truffles from Alba,” says Stéphane Buron, chef of the two-Michelin-star gastronomic restaurant Le Chabichou in the French Alps. “I once bought black truffles from Spain last minute and although they were beautiful, they lack the perfume.”
Due to their rareness, truffles are one of the most expensive types of fungi. The chefs I spoke with pay anywhere from around $700 to $2,500 per kilogram, depending on supply and demand, and the region they’re from. In Toronto, Don Alfonso 1890 pays $1,800–$2,500 per kilogram; Gladstone House pays $2,550; and Aburi Hana pays $2,100. In France, Le Chabichou spends $700–$1,000; Restaurant Sylvestre spends $1,850; and The House Restaurant in Ireland spends $1,775.
What you may not know is that truffles grow underground — from a few centimetres up to 30 centimetres below ground — and can only be detected by their odour. For this reason, trained pigs and dogs — whose sense of smell is 100,000 times stronger than ours — are used to detect them. It’s not foolproof though. Truffle pigs have been banned in Italy since 1985 for two reasons: Pigs can’t resist the urge to eat truffles once they’ve been found, plus their snouts often damage the delicate soil and structure needed for future truffle growth.
The aroma of truffles is particularly intoxicating for female pigs, which makes them better truffle hunters than their male counterparts. Truffles contain a sex hormone similar to testosterone that drives them wild. However, I would argue that female pigs aren’t the only mammals who find the smell of truffles to be an aphrodisiac.
Female pigs are intoxicated by the aroma of truffles
Humans can also hunt for truffles, but since we’re not blessed with supernatural sniffing powers, we can only detect them when they show up at the soil’s surface. Signs of truffle growth take a minimum of three to five years to become visible, and they must be perfectly ripe before they’re harvested. Plucking them early risks losing the potency and flavour they’re revered for, and wasting the years spent growing them. The moment truffles are removed from the ground, the countdown to decay begins.
“It is said that the scent of truffles decreases by 10 per cent in one day after collection,” says Ryusuke Nakagawa, executive chef of Aburi Hana. The shelf life of a fresh truffle is only five to seven days, which makes me wonder how chefs deal with the travel time of this precious fungi. “I never have transport issues since our suppliers come directly to Le Chabichou,” says chef Buron. “They pick them on Monday and the truffles arrive on Tuesday.”
Chef Sylvestre Wahid of France’s two-Michelin-star Restaurant Sylvestre Wahid explains: “From the moment the craftsman picks up the truffles, it does not take more than 24 hours for our restaurant to collect them. This is precisely the objective of working with local artisans; it allows us to take advantage of very fresh products and to keep all the essence of the ingredients.”
Keeping travel times down is vital for chefs in France, and it’s no different at Don Alfonso 1890 in Toronto. “The truffles that we order for the kitchen are typically flown direct to us after 24 hours of picking,” Corona says.
Since these chefs are accustomed to working with fresh truffles, it’s only right that they know what signs to look for should a rotten one appear in their batch. “Mouldy truffles give off an ammonia-like smell and the texture is softened,” says chef Wahid. Chef Corona agrees: “The key factor to look for is acidity in both smell and taste. If there are high acid notes, the product is past its prime.” In other words, “If it’s rotten, the smell is so awful you’ll vomit,” affirms chef Buron.
Similarly, the intense odour is the quintessential telltale sign indicating whether a truffle is counterfeit. Luckily, all of the chefs I speak with assure me they only work with trusted suppliers, making this a non-issue.
Storing truffles preserves their odour and longevity
Whether at home or at a restaurant, correctly storing truffles is part of preserving their odour and longevity. Chef Singh offers some helpful tips on how to stash truffles properly and, contrary to popular belief, it’s not nesting them in rice. “We wrap them in paper towels within a plastic container and poke holes in the lid to allow air circulation, otherwise the moisture would build up and break down the truffles quicker.”
Storing extra inventory during mandatory pandemic closures was an issue many chefs had to deal with. Chef Doyle creatively came up with a solution for his restaurant’s surplus truffles. “When we went into a sudden lockdown last winter, I was left with a few hundred grams of spare truffles. I decided to store them in riesling. The wine preserves the truffles and takes on an amazing flavour for finishing sauces.”
Knowing that truffles are wildly expensive and high maintenance, I had to know why chefs need them in their kitchens, can’t live without them and, essentially, why they’re worth the hype. Singh says: “I love working with truffles because one of the most expensive items in the world pairs perfectly with the most humble ingredients — eggs, potatoes and pasta — allowing the aroma to be fully appreciated. There really is nothing else that compares to the aroma. It’s something that just needs to be experienced. I probably could live without them, but for me, personally, there are memories tied to the times and places I’ve had truffles, going back to the very first time I had them in 2007 at Susur Lee’s restaurant, and now as part of my family Christmas dinner.”
"Memories are tied to times and places I’ve had truffles"
Doyle also emphasizes how the aromatic properties of truffles are unrivalled: “The reason I love truffles so much is because of the aroma. It’s such a sweet and earthy scent. It has such a depth of flavour as well. It adds drama to a dish. At the restaurant, we treat dinner like a play — truffles are a great ingredient for achieving a successful play.”